Dear Bob

What the new CBC boss should — but won’t — do to fix our national broadcaster.

Marketing Magazine, November 15, 1999   

“The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as a cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”

 — Hunter S. Thompson


Did you breathe a sigh of relief once a new head had been appointed for the CBC? Didn’t we all? Will any of us ever forget the wild speculation, the heady anticipation that preceded the naming of Robert Rabinovitch to the post? And what new wondering and guesswork will ensue now that someone has finally been chosen? What radical change in mission, mandate and purpose might we now expect from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation?


Admit it. You didn’t even know the post was vacant. You couldn’t pick Bob Rabinovitch out of a police lineup that consisted of three people if he were wearing a name tag reading “Hello My Name Is Bob Rabinovitch.” And why should you be able to? The CBC does two things well: radio and This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Even the old reliable Hockey Night In Canada has been rendered irrelevant with the rise of cable sports channels. And yet the CBC trudges on, sucking more of our tax money into its gaping maw. To do what, exactly?


Train journalists for work in the United States, put their work on regular satellite feeds where U.S. recruiters can see it, demoralize the inspired and dedicated, stomp the will to live out of most of the employees, and provide comfortable lifelong sinecures for the otherwise unemployable — mostly bureaucrats for whom nothing else can be found. I worked at the CBC for five years. I had a great deal of respect for almost all the people I worked with daily — folks who actually contributed to making television. They’re smart, creative and seemingly inexhaustible. But they’re stymied in an outfit that views those attributes as liabilities, and bosses who value obedience above everything. These days, when I run into folks who still work for the Corp. and ask how things are going, most of them just moan, mutter something about how they quit making any effort a couple of years ago and then shrug.


About the only person who does care about Mr. Rabinovitch and the CBC is Patrick Watson. He offered Rabinovitch a full page of unsolicited advice in the Globe and Mail. I thought there was nothing less relevant or more boring than the identity of the CBC boss...until I saw Patrick Watson’s advice to the CBC boss. And then my entire being was overwhelmed with such stupefying torpor I fell face-first onto the kitchen table.


When I woke up, I remembered Watson was rumored to have run the CBC at the beginning of the decade. He was installed in the slot while the Mulroney Tories were making a series of much-needed cuts to the CBC’s bloated, unjustified and unsustainable budget. Much of that cutting seemed motivated more by personal pique than fiscal prudence, but that just amounted to doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Of course, faced with less money, the CBC started canning the people who shot, edited and wrote its programming. The middle management slugs stayed put. More illustrative during that episode was Watson’s deafening silence. You’d think that Mr. “Itch For Democracy” would have quit in protest, screeched his dissent or tried to explain to the staff why the cuts were necessary. None of that happened.


Well, if people who used to work at the CBC can offer unsolicited advice, here’s mine: The CBC ought to decide whether it wants to be a state-operated broadcaster, a private network or some hybrid. If it’s going to be a hybrid, then it ought to go the PBS route, albeit with the caveat it offer better programming. And following the PBS model, it’s going to have to get the public to pay for at least part of its operations directly, rather than its current tax-skimming MO.


The corporation is used to going cap-in-hand to the government, so asking its viewers to pay should be easy. If it’s going to be a commercial broadcaster — a business — then it’s got to start operating like one. Make — or buy — programming that people will want to watch, present it well, promote it so that people know it’s on and when, and then sell an advertiser that audience. And no more government money, unless it comes from media departments paying for advertising like everybody else.


Nobody will take this advice. The CBC will continue to offer middlebrow mediocrity in its confused neither-fish-nor-fowl, quasi-commercial/kinda-public way. And in doing so, it will continue to fulfill its true mandate: giving Canadians a crummy, redundant entity that’s not good enough to celebrate, but not rotten enough to be embarrassed about; something we don’t love enough to sustain, but don’t care enough about to fix. And most important, something we can passionately debate the merits and shortcomings of without intending to ever do anything about the situation at all.